A couple housekeeping items here…
I only included cities/areas with a current NHL team in America. This means that no Canadian markets are included, and I did not evaluate places that used to have a team and may be seeking one in the near future like Kansas City, Atlanta or Hartford, Conn.
I have provided the primary market for each team, average attendance since the 2005 lockout (not including this season) and what percentage of the arena the team is filling. There is more emphasis on current attendance, but a team’s history in each location is considered.
The presence of the game's history in each city is taken into consideration, but the focus is on whether each area supports their NHL team in order to be fair to places without high-level high school programs like Philadelphia and St. Louis as well as Sun Belt markets with strong hockey support like San Jose and Tampa Bay.
Finally, I have taken into consideration information accrued from years of reading your comments while covering the NHL for Bleacher Report. As always, your readership and commentary is always appreciated.
All attendance information is via ESPN.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 15,767 (86.0 percent)
Anaheim is the worst hockey market in the NHL.
The Ducks were the first Californian team to win the Stanley Cup and always have had superstars like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne on their roster. Not only that, they also have kept young stars like Bobby Ryan and Cam Fowler around, giving fans reason to believe that the team has a good future ahead of itself.
Despite being in one of the largest markets in the U.S., the Ducks struggle to fill the Honda Center every year, and they deserve to be at the bottom of this list.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 13,873 (75.8 percent)
Arizona itself is one of the worst sports markets in the U.S., and it is no surprise that the Coyotes do not have more fans. This is probably because there are a lot of displaced fans in the area who have held their allegiance to teams on the Midwest and East Coast.
It cannot go overlooked that Jobing.com Arena is located in Glendale, which is a 32-minute drive from Scottsdale, where a lot of potential Coyotes fans live. To put that in perspective, that is about the same distance from Newark to Manhattan.
Having said that, a lot of fans drive through traffic from the suburbs into the city to see their teams and still pack the house every night.
In the end, hockey’s experiment in the desert looks destined to fail because of the lack of fan support in the Copper State.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 15,700 (75.7 percent)
There will always be hockey in South Florida because of the massive population there that the league hopes will embrace the Panthers in good seasons and eventually produce hockey players like prospect Gabe Guertler who will populate the NHL in years to come.
Now, the Panthers really haven’t given their fans a lot to cheer for outside of that 1996 Stanley Cup appearance, but the team is playing better lately, and there is reason to believe that former Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon will put a good team on the ice.
Additionally, the team left the Pink Elephant in 1998, and while their arena is 45 minutes from Miami itself, it is close to Fort Lauderdale, which is essentially South Florida’s Scottsdale.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 15,328 (82.9 percent)
Before you take a dump on the Blue Jackets, consider this:
The team has not given their fans anything to cheer for. This club has made the playoffs once and never won a playoff game.
The organization has put forth an effort to bring people to the game. Nationwide Arena is considered a great game-day experience.
And, the NHL team is smart to put a team in Columbus because it could become the only Ohio-based professional team to have fans in both Cleveland and Cincinnati.
So yeah, you can’t blame fans for souring on the Jackets—especially with Ohio State University sitting next door. It’s not a bad fanbase; it’s just undeveloped due to the team’s poor play.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 15,067 (82.2 percent)
There is no reason that the Devils should not have full attendance every game.
This club has won three Stanley Cups since arriving from Colorado in the 80s and has employed hockey legends like Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias as well as up-and-coming stars like Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique.
The problem is that New Jersey is infested with Rangers and Flyers fans due to the state’s proximity to New York and Philadelphia, respectfully, reducing the fanbase significantly.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 12,842 (79.4 percent)
I will cut the Islanders some slack because Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum has gone from "Fort Neverlose" to "Fort Decrepit" since the team’s heyday in the 80s.
The reason that the Islanders are not in Quebec City, Seattle or Kansas City right now is because of the loyal fans who show up to an outdated arena to see a putrid hockey team play year in and year out. Fortunately, this club is safe and sound now that we know they will be playing in Brooklyn in the near future.
It’s hard to tell if that team will ever have a large fanbase because there are many people in Brooklyn who are Ranger fans, and the team is moving from its fans on the Island.
However, due to its configuration, the Barclays Center can only hold around 15,000 hockey fans, and following the move, it will be hard to believe that the team can’t fill a small arena like that in years to come.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 15,345 (89.7 percent)
The Predators have done well, considering the Music City is a small, Sun Belt city that is not really known for its sports fans.
I don’t mean to pick on Preds fans here—their supporters are large and passionate enough to keep the team in there, and Cellblock 303 is considered one of the best experiences in sports—it’s just that it is not as thriving as, say, Detroit, Pittsburgh or even Los Angeles.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 16,269 (87.1 percent)
The Hurricanes are another team in a smaller southern market that has done well. This is especially true, given that this team took a rocky path through Greensboro and is hated by Whalers fans out in Connecticut.
There is a lot of history here: Ron Francis, Rod Brind’Amour, and now, the Skinner and the Staal Boys. They even have that little siren which is a nice touch. The problem is that many hockey fans out there are displaced fans of Midwestern and East Coast teams that went to Research Triangle for the education and job opportunities.
Like Nashville, it’s a nice fanbase, but it is hard to put this fanbase above places like Minnesota, Philadelphia or even San Jose.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 16,655 (90.0 percent)
It’s hard to imagine, but the Toll Booth used to be so silent you thought it was on vibrate. That was before the Ovechkin Era.
Unlike Pittsburgh, however, this fanbase took a longer time to react to superstardom. Both cities were on the verge of losing their teams, but the Penguins knew they had a star in Sidney Crosby and a great team around him. The Caps drafted Alex Ovechkin and put a great team around him, but the fans didn’t show up until they started dominating the Southeast Division.
Part of the reason may be that people come to the city due to politics and kept their fanship from a previous stop until the Caps got better…or maybe DC is just a bandwagon city. Either way, it’s hard to forget that there were definitely some lean years in Washington.
Now it looks like this team is heading in the wrong direction, and with more losses, we’ll see the real colors of fans in this city.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 16,022 (89.0 percent)
The Avalanche sold out games for nearly 11 years, but they also won a Stanley Cup in the first year they arrived from Quebec and won another one at the turn of the century.
So, fair to say, it wasn’t hard to root for the team then.
After the team started losing, though, Colorado avoided this team like the plague.
Time will tell if they will embrace Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog like they did Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg back in the day.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 16,853 (90.9 percent)
It is hard to believe that the Stars used to pack the AAC, but back before Tom Hicks went bankrupt, hockey used to be a large attraction once the football season ended in Dallas.
It helped that the team won a Stanley Cup shortly after arriving from Minnesota, but fans stuck around until the product on the ice became difficult to watch.
The Stars will make a rebound, and while they may never draw fans from Houston and San Antonio—two cities that despise Dallas as a whole—people in the Big D should embrace them.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 17,301 (95.5 percent)
People in L.A. will tell you that the Staples Center is the loudest venue in hockey, but that’s only because people out there don’t leave California much (unless it’s to go to New York).
By no means do the Kings have the best fans in hockey, far from it, but fans in other cities often unfairly depict them as uneducated, fair-weather supporters.
Hockey is a niche sport in L.A., and people did hop on the bandwagon last year, but there are more than enough loyal Kings fans out there to sell out games on a regular basis.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 17,433 (99.6 percent)
The Sharks have become one of the most supported Sun Belt hockey teams because of the way they are managed. Not only does the front office put a good product on the ice year in and year out, but the team also built a smaller arena that fills up every night and makes the Shark Tank an exciting experience for both the diehard and lukewarm hockey fan.
As a result, they have capitalized on being the only team in a large city. While their market is the Bay Area, where they have to compete with the San Francisco and Oakland teams, it is much more convenient for a Silicon Valley resident to go to a Sharks game than for them to drive an hour north to support the other professional sports teams.
Considering that hockey had little presence in San Jose before they came and the city itself has a lot of displaced Midwestern and East Coast fans, the Sharks have done a good job of building a loyal hockey fanbase that should support the team for years to come.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 18,114 (92.9 percent)
In my mind, Tampa Bay and the Bay Area are basically 10a and 10b in terms of hockey markets. What sets Tampa apart is that they have a significantly larger arena that. While it sells out less, they also have more people coming through the gates on a yearly basis.
Not only that but there are significantly less people in the Tampa Bay Area than the San Francisco Bay Area, meaning more of the population is going to hockey games.
Like the Sharks, the Lightning have put myriad competitive teams on the ice, but San Jose has not seen their team become part of a money laundering scandal or completely implode like fans in Tampa have experienced since their club arrived in the 90’s.
It definitely says something about hockey fans in Central Florida that they’re able to ride the team’s ups-and-downs and still continue to fill the Ice Palace to this day.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 16,559 (94.2 percent)
Cue the outrage…
I get it Boston. I know that you endured the Ray Bourque and Joe Thornton fiascos, and I realize that this team was not winning while the Red Sox were shedding a curse, the Celtics’ Big Three were revolutionizing the NBA and Tom Brady’s Patriots were a NFL dynasty.
Still, don’t pretend Boston fans are more tortured than sports fans in Buffalo or the Twin Cities—they’re not.
Don’t pretend your city has been devastated like Detroit—it hasn’t been.
And therefore, the lack of attendance in the mid-2000s puts you in ninth place on this list.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 17,106 (88.8 percent)
The Blues suffered a double whammy in 2005.
They knew their club was going to struggle after making it to the finals in the first three years of its existence and qualifying for the playoffs from 1980-2004.
So for the first two years after the lockout, the people of St. Louis abandoned the Blues. Unlike TSA or Stella, however, hockey fans returned to the Gateway to the West, and within two years, the Blues were popular again.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 17,166 (99.9 percent)
The Penguins had an Islanders-like situation before Super Mario (Mario Lemieux) swept in and saved hockey in Pittsburgh. They were a former dynasty that was struggling on the ice and playing in an outdated arena.
Make no mistake: Pittsburgh is a sports town, and the diehards in this area are the reason why this team is still here. Otherwise, the Pens would have been long gone before he could save them.
With a new arena, Sidney Crosby and a slew of superstars, the Penguins will be around for the long run.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 18,156 (99.8 percent)
I can actually feel the vitriol from Rangers fans seeping through my computer screen…
Here’s the thing guys: I know that you guys are used to winning (unless you’re from Queens), but you guys do not put up the numbers like the five cities listed ahead of you, and if you’re in the biggest city in the United States, you’ve got to do that.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 18,497 (93.8 percent)
The United Center is called the Madhouse on Madison for a reason—people in there are absolutely insane, and it’s always packed.
Well…it’s always packed these days.
The people of Chicago abandoned the Blackhawks before the Kane/Toews/Keith days, but the team also wasn’t on television there.
Now that WGN is picking up their games, and the team is winning again, fans are coming to the UC in droves and making Chicago one of the greatest hockey markets in the U.S.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 18,513 (99.7 percent)
Here’s the crazy thing: It seems like when there is a Sabres game, everyone from the city is there.
Buffalo does not have the population of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles—hell it has less people in its metropolitan area than Raleigh, Nashville and Columbus—and still it has more people show up to games on a nightly basis than all of those cities.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 18,350 (101.5 percent)
People in Minnesota have hockey in their blood and are outraged that the Stars left in the early 90s. Their passion materializes in the sense that they sold out every game for the first 10 years of the team’s existence—and should continue to sell out in the Parise/Suter era.
The top three cities on this list could easily be 1a, 1b and 1c. Sheer numbers, not a lack of interest, is why Minnesota is No. 3.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 19,674 (100.7 percent)
Here’s the crazy thing with Philadelphia: Unlike in Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts, people here play non-high school-affiliated club hockey if they want to play in college.
On top of that, the nascent Penn State hockey team has yet to gain traction in Philly where places like the University of Minnesota, Michigan, Boston University, Boston College, Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan State all have big-time programs.
Still, Flyers fans show up every night regardless of how the team is doing.
Average Attendance Since Lockout: 19,744 (98.4 percent)
It may be a town that has endured struggles, it may be a mid-market and the team is no longer a dynasty.
No matter, people still pack The Joe.
That’s why they call it Hockeytown.